From the IoT to Metaverse

By Bruce Grove

From a Coke Machine to the Metaverse, via cloud gaming


“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” Mark Weiser 1991

Stephenson, Le Guin, Adams, Clarke, Harrison, Gibson, Cline, Bradbury; authors likely familiar to anyone who is curious about how close we are to the Metaverse. Earlier this year, a great article by Matthew Ball went into depth about what this might mean, to which Gene Park at the Washington Post recently followed, both of which have prompted me to put keyboard to screen.

Ball noted, “At a foundational level, the technology simply does not yet exist for there to be hundreds, let alone millions of people participating in a shared, synchronous experience.” That’s not entirely true, and this is as much a social engineering problem as it is a technology problem. We already have games and platforms that can host hundreds of thousands of concurrent users, and the creation of new technologies to swell that number to merely facilitate the concept of the Metaverse won’t get us there any faster. Only by allowing ourselves, and all our technology to be truly synced do I believe we will be nearer to creating the Metaverse. To understand this, let’s talk about Coke.

In 1982 a small team of engineers at Carnegie Mellon University connected a Coke machine to the internet. There’s an old adage that the best engineers are lazy, and this laziness drives them to find innovative solutions to reduce their expense of effort. For the CMU team, it was walking up a couple of floors only to discover their caffeine dispenser was empty, or worse, filled with warm soda! The solution was a combination of micro-switches, some software, a lightly modified Coke machine, and a connection to ARPANET. It was now possible to check whether the machine had soda before making the arduous journey to another floor, in fact, you could check the status of the machine from anywhere in the world. With this wonderful piece of Heath Robinson engineering, it is also oft said was born the Internet of Things. Twenty-five years after that event, around 2007, it is also said the IoT truly came into its own, when more “things” than people became connected to the internet.

Today, from our thermostats to medical devices, voice-activated speakers, or our ride hire scooters, all have become part of our IoT world. They’re all connected, to each other, to the cloud, to us, creating what is estimated to be 27 billion things (that’s four times the population of the planet) all working as part of one giant internet of connected data, devices, and CMU Coke machine conveniences. The journey from that first IoT soda to now, a time when all those connected things have become the fabric of our everyday life has been more than three decades. Along this journey has been the creation of incredible amounts of technology, and standards, that either directly or indirectly make it possible; the internet, wifi, mobile, RFID, NFC, cloud compute, edge compute, Bluetooth, and many, many, many lines of software.

So what has this got to do with the Metaverse?

Attribution Helicarrier: John Romita, Jr.

I first read Snow Crash back in the nineties and had grown up reading all manner of sci-fi. I was working on flight training simulators at the time, creating virtual experiences inside virtual worlds that enabled the introduction of quasi-real environments and events, and back then, it felt like the Metaverse wasn’t that far away. We’d built a platform designed to train people how to operate in the real world, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t play around beyond the natural limits, and in our break times had fun creating an expanded, more exciting, malleable, virtual world. You want an Avengers-style Helicarrier flying past at 10,000 meters? We could do that (it looked remarkably like the British Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal) and yes, you could land and take off from it. Why did we do this? Because we could. Turns out, we’ve had the capability to build expansive virtual worlds for over 30 years.

Author ‘playing’ with defence industry’s astonishingly expensive synthetic training tools c. 1992

Whilst I was busy abusing the defence industry’s astonishingly expensive synthetic training tools, others were starting to build virtual worlds that anyone with a connection to the internet could venture into. We‘d already had a decade of MUDs (multi-user domains) where people could move online to chat, socialise, and play games. WorldsAway, released in 1995, gave us a multi-user, graphical, virtual chat environment where people could manage their avatars, pose, and talk. They also had an in-world currency and virtual businesses that you had to pay to get access to. Just a couple of years after the publication of Snow Crash and we could start to see the Metaverse emerging. Worlds started popping up everywhere, and these weren’t just places to play games but were interactive social spaces. Places to co-exist with others not just in game, but in life. Launched in 2001, Runescape Classic ran for 17 years until it closed down, and for many people, it was part of who they were for more than a decade. Shuttering that game was a huge emotional moment and the feeling of loss for that fantasy world was real. In 2003, Second Life launched and still today has hundreds of thousands of users, many of whom for the first time in their lives, found an accessible way to virtually meet and socialise with other people from around the world. Eve Online has also been running since 2003, a virtual world of space trading, career building, allegiances, politics, trading, exploration, and record-breaking battles, some of which have been years in the making. It’s also the largest single shard MMO, frequently boasting tens of thousand players in the world at the same time, and with the likes of enabling cloud technologies such as Epic, Hadean, Improbable, Genvid, and Polystream these worlds could become ever bigger, ever more persistent, ever more interactive, and ever more just part of “our fabric of everyday life”.

So why don’t they?

Well, for one thing, social engineering; identity, interactivity, interoperability, a persistence of self that is more than in an in-game persona for that one environment. Eve has been around for long enough that if it needed to solve for more players in-game it could, and whilst its challenges of needing to slow down time when large numbers of people gather at once is well documented, those are occasional events. If they were happening every day you can be sure that’s where the developers, CCP, would be putting all of their resources. Instead, Eve is self-sustaining, and today, most of these environments cap out because they reach a critical mass of players based on the genre, the demographic, the scale of the game environment or the story. We also don’t connect these experiences, if your neighbour is in Eve, and you’re in Second Life, you have no way to meet, even if we scaled the platform. The Metaverse isn’t about scaling what we have, it’s about connecting everything we have together.

It’s taken 40 years for technology to advance towards hosting these millions of people but for the shared, synchronous experience that Ball talks of, we now need to look to the cloud. The past 15 years have seen our games moved from the consoles in our living rooms to data centres, with the vision to create a platform that makes playing games as easy as making a phone call, or setting the temperature on my IoT connected thermostat. If we really want to create the Netflix for Games, we probably shouldn’t start by putting a blu-ray machine for every player in a rack in a warehouse, but that’s exactly the approach cloud gaming platforms are taking today with their one machine for one user set up. I fervently now believe that’s not what cloud gaming should be, and it’s certainly not what the Metaverse should be.

Like IoT, we will know cloud gaming is truly profound once the technology to make it happen disappears, at least to the user. And with it will come new experiences that cross devices, giving each of us a portal into worlds larger than anything we’ve ever seen that are based on not just what we’re holding, but by what we want to do, achieve, and be at that moment, and it will give us a way to carry our data and persona across environments. Maybe environments like Fortnite, or Minecraft, or Roblox are exploring the way, but if we truly want a path to the Metaverse, then we need to think more about the infrastructure behind the platforms, the identity of self, persistence of data, and how do I move my data, my self, from one place to another.

The challenge and opportunity ahead

In Gene Park’s aforementioned Washington Post article Jason Rubin states “The arguments we should be having are, should we be more open than we are now, or should we be more closed than we are now? That would lead to a more rational discussion.” This is going to be critical to what happens next.

Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

Today a small number of platforms control how users interact, move content, move bits, move identity. I can ask Amazon’s Alexa to change the temperature on my Google Nest. IoT technologies created the infrastructure and the protocols to allow that, but I can still only do that when Amazon and Google agree to allow these devices to talk to each other. At the same time, I’ve also just lost Dark Sky, the best weather app on Android because Apple have bought them and are shutting it down for non-Apple users. Ball noted of Fortnite that “For now, it’s the only legal place on the Internet where a Netflix-approved avatar of Hopper from “Stranger Things” can twerk on a Disney-approved avatar of Rey Skywalker from Star Wars.”, but that’s because Netflix, Disney, and Epic, have all permitted those IPs to exist inside the Fortnite world. Yet in 2006, alongside the numerous individuals, companies like Dell, IBM, Nike, Adidas, BMW, and many others were opening showrooms and creating a virtual presence inside Second Life, showrooms that required no permission from Linden Labs, and allowed inhabitants of the Grid to not just buy in-world virtual goods, but to build customer relationships that could cross into the real world.

As 2020 has brought us global lockdowns, social distancing, and isolation, and as we look at how technology is now helping to keep us connected to the world and each other, the opportunity to accelerate and cement the path to the Metaverse is perhaps more realistic and closer than ever. To make it happen, our platforms and experiences need to be built differently. From Eve Online mass battles to 10 million player Fortnite concerts, Roblox showing One World, to Zoom being a place for both massive online conferences and intimate virtual cocktail hours after ‘work’ with friends, the Internet of Things needs the infrastructure to become the Internet of Everyone, and I believe the cloud, and enabling the creation of cloud-native experiences will be a huge foundation stone. Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Linkedin, Facebook, Telegram, Fortnite, Roblox, Weibo… when we can move between these worlds, or whatever follows, as if they were one, then we’ll have our Metaverse. Until then, companies like Polystream, Epic, Hadean, and all the rest that may one day exploit our technologies during their break times, will need to work together to build the parts that will connect it all.

Author Bruce Grove, CEO and Co-Founder of Polystream, has 25 years of experience across video game platforms, enterprise, telecoms, and avionics. This post is a continuation of his thoughts on why we have a need to think differently about the cloud for massive interactive experiences.